Unleash Your Headphones’ Full Potential With A USB DAC And Amplifier

So you’ve picked out the perfect pair of headphones, but they sound a little flat and quiet coming from your computer’s crappy built-in audio. Here’s a little gadget that will make those headphones sound much better.

What a DAC/Amp Combo Does

When you play music from your computer or mobile device, it goes through a Digital-Analog Converter (DAC) and an amplifier. The DAC converts the audio from a digital signal to an analogue one (obviously), and the amplifier is what sends it to your headphones. The problem is, most devices don’t have very good DACs or amps built in. So, if you get a nice high-end pair of headphones, you may still be getting relatively crappy sound from your computer or MP3 player. That’s where an external DAC/amp combo comes in. (If you’re just using the default iPod headphones, turn back now. A DAC isn’t going to help you at all.)

Routing your audio through one of these devices will bypass their lame sound card and do two things: 1) increase the quality of the sound, and 2) boost it so you don’t have to turn the volume up so loud. You don’t need to be an intense audiophile to notice a difference, either. I noticed a huge difference in sound volume, and a pretty solid difference in quality, especially in the bass. The bass coming out of my computer’s sound card sounded like a bass drum playing from a tiny speaker into my ear. The bass coming out of a DAC sounded like like a tiny, actual bass drum pumping beats into my ear. It’s hard to explain without using buzzwords like “fuller sound” and “higher range”, but trust me — after you listen to your headphones on one of these bad boys, going back will just make everything sound flatter.

Note that you can only get the full benefit of a DAC/amp combo with your desktop or laptop computer, via USB or SPDIF. While many of them have adapters for iPods and other mobile devices, the DAC half of the device won’t actually work. Only the amp half will. This is still great for giving your sound a boost in volume if it’s coming out too quiet (which is particularly noticeable with higher-end, higher-impedance headphones), but you won’t really hear an increase in quality. Some also have little built-in equaliser settings, so you can boost up the bass or mids with the flip of a switch. So, the benefits aren’t quite as great with portable devices, but depending on your tastes and your headphones, they might be worth it — but there is some debate.

Which DAC/Amp Combo to Buy

You have a lot of different DACs to choose from, though the Fiio line is extremely popular, and the one with which I have experience.Here are a few of the more popular Fiio models, and which one you should buy based on their strengths:

  • The $US25 Fiio E6 is designed to be connected to portable devices like the iPod (through an adaptor sold separately). It’s perfect for those that don’t want to spend a lot of extra money, but who’s headphones could use a bit of extra volume. It also has settings for boosting the bass and mids, if you’re looking for a bit of extra power in one of those areas.
  • The $US88 Fiio E7 is designed for both mobile devices and computers. It can either connect to your iPod as an amp or your computer as a DAC/amp combo, making it a good all-around choice. It isn’t filled with extra features, but does have a rather saucy bass boost knob for you dubstep nuts out there.
  • The $US99 Fiio E10 — my DAC of choice — is designed to connect to computers via USB. It has better sound quality than the E7 at a comparable price point, but it doesn’t work on mobile devices. Again, though, many argue that portable amps aren’t necessary, so unless you find your headphones are too quiet on your iPod, you may be better off just going with the E10.
  • The $US150 Fiio E17 combines the sound quality of the E10 with the portability and feature set of the E7. As such, it’s perfect for those that need an amp on the go, a higher quality DAC on their computer, and are willing to spend a bit more money to get them.

Of course, these aren’t the only models out there, and Fiio isn’t the only brand that makes DACs. They are, however, some of the most popular, and with good reason — they’re about the highest quality you’re going to find in the sub-$US100 price point. Audioengine’s DACs are also quite popular, albeit a bit more expensive. You get the idea, though: which one you buys will depend on your headphones, the device you’re using to play the audio, and your personal preferences. Before you buy, read reviews and check out forums like Head-Fi for more detailed information on each model, especially when pertaining to a specific set of headphones. I’ve also found the Audiophile subreddit over at Reddit to be full of especially helpful and honest people. As long as you do your research, you should end up with something that takes your headphones from good to great with almost no effort.

Do you have any experience with DACs and amps? Share your thoughts, findings and other opinions in the comments below.

The Cheapest NBN 50 Plans

Here are the cheapest plans available for Australia’s most popular NBN speed tier.

At Lifehacker, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.


16 responses to “Unleash Your Headphones’ Full Potential With A USB DAC And Amplifier”

Leave a Reply